Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11, page 861
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
There’s probably not a better preacher alive than Dr. Fred Craddock, a minister in the Disciples of Christ tradition who served a church here in town for a number of years. And while he was there, Mr. Bronston Boone, long time member of this church, served with him, leading meetings of that congregation’s elected leaders.
Not only did Bronston drive me down to Ellijay, GA to meet Dr. Craddock, Bronston recently gave me a couple DVDs of Dr. Craddock preaching at a big convention up in Nashville.
Dr. Craddock began by talking about the recession: “Money is in short supply, as are our jobs, but we really suffer because also in short supply are words.”
We need words to explain our situation, to tell the story of how we got here, and we need words to give us a clear direction for how we are going to get out.
But where are the inspiring words? There are plenty of questions; there’s plenty of blame, plenty of excuses and distractions, but not much inspiration, and maybe that’s because no one takes words quite as seriously as deeds.
Words are undervalued, Dr. Craddock says, but we need to remember “that sticks and stones may break your bones, but words…words will kill you.”
If you don’t believe it think about the words of Homecoming season. You have teenage boys up all night amassing the courage to say the words, “Would you like to go with me to the Homecoming dance?”
Those are big, powerful words – so big and so powerful they get stuck on their way out – maybe they get halfway out or maybe they end up never spoken, even though you have teenage girls dying to hear them.
Some people don’t take words seriously. High school boys certainly do though, and I want you to know that I believe words are more powerful than just about anything else.
Think about the words “I love you.” If you’ve never heard those words from a person you needed to hear them from then you know exactly how powerful they are.
All you can eat buffet – some people take those words very seriously.
In sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live – some people take those words very seriously, others, not so much. But regardless, the minister says them and it’s how the bride and groom interprets them that matters.
I’m sorry – it matters how these words are said, but parents make their children say them even if they don’t really mean it because the words themselves have power beyond the speaker’s level of repentance.
Repentance, redemption, forgiveness – we all hear these words, often from me, but what matters is not whether or not I say them – what matters is whether or not you hear them.
Some people hear them loud and clear – those coming to church seeking forgiveness will surely find it if their ears are open and their hearts are willing – as each and every week I say the words, “who is in a position to condemn, only Christ, and Christ was born for us, Christ lived for us, Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us, by the testimony of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”
Those are good words – good enough that I’ve memorized them so that I can say them with some conviction – but what matters is not how I say the words, what matters is how you hear them.
For some, forgiveness is only serious business when it comes to their forgiveness, and from the belly of a whale Jonah cries out to God for forgiveness. In our call to worship we read that Jonah cries out to God to save him though he knows he doesn’t deserve it.
On the other hand, when it’s the Ninevites crying out to God, Jonah hopes that God won’t listen as forgiveness is something else when it’s the Ninevites.
That’s a horrible quality, really – to believe in forgiveness only selfishly, but that’s how some people are. Jonah goes through the city of Nineveh begrudgingly preaching as all prophets do – God’s wrath is coming. Unlike most prophets, Jonah leaves no room for repentance, there’s only judgment and wrath, but the Ninevites take his words and hear the opportunity for repentance and turn from their evil ways.
This isn’t what Jonah wanted to happen, however, and this attribute also sets him apart from all the other prophets. He is the only prophet in the Bible who hopes that the people won’t listen.
Jonah doesn’t celebrate, then, when he becomes the most effective prophet in scripture, successfully convicting all the hearts of Nineveh enough that they repent and turn from their ways. Jonah was hoping that he might just control the way his words were interpreted. I guess he was hoping that his words would either fall on deaf ears or wouldn’t be taken seriously, that his words would not change a single heart, that his words would mean what he wanted them to mean: “40 days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But what the Ninevites heard is what matters, not what Jonah said. His words were like forced apologies, they came out empty of conviction, but they were heard loud and clear.
And that’s how words are – they take on a meaning of their own, and sometimes it’s how they’re heard that matters, not how they’re said.
Cancer is a word like that. The doctor who says that word can mean it one way, but it’s how the word is heard by the patient that matters.
It’s hard to hear a word like “divorce” and not think the worst. But from that word one person hears failure, heartbreak, another relief, freedom.
There are some who grow up hearing that you’re not good enough, and it’s difficult not to carry those words around, letting them define you and everything you do, letting the one who said them determine your life’s course. But it’s how you hear the words that matters. It’s how you choose to interpret them that is really holding you back or setting you free.
The Ninevites heard the words “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and while they could have started preparing for the worst, instead they said to themselves, “Let’s just try. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
I pray this day that you will be so bold to go and do the same, not letting the meaning of words be set in stone, but daring to believe that they may indeed be heard a different way.
Hear words of despair, sadness, and sickness and be bold to see in them a reason to hope.
Hear words of condemnation, foolishness, and shame and be bold to hear over and above them words of God’s promise and love.
Hear words like “not good enough,” “can’t be fixed,” and “it’s too late,” and be bold enough to say, “Who knows? God may…God just might.”
Because the truth is, it’s God who gets to decide what happens next – not the one who said the words.
“For I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent form punishing.”
Forgiveness is real, and while Jonah didn’t quite want to believe it, God was longing to hear of the Ninevites’ repentance. While Jonah uttered his words without conviction, not believing in the worth of an entire city, God looked down, full of forgiveness, full of love, full of patience, and was only too eager to celebrate their return.
Thanks be to God.